Episode Twenty-One – ‘Romeo is Moping’, Part Three

Everything looks better on a full stomach. Seated back at our corner table in the tavern, with a full dish of broth digesting in my stomach and half a jug of wine still remaining to be polished off, I felt ready to tackle anything tragedy might throw at us. Sign me up as Hamlet’s therapist, Othello’s marriage guidance counsellor, Richard III’s political advisor – I could take on the lot of them.

Romeo had pushed away most his dinner untasted, perhaps feeling that a hearty appetite didn’t exactly complement his general air of melancholy, be he had proved more than willing to pour his heart out about his split from Rosaline whilst Michael and I tucked in. It was, we soon discovered, a fairly simple tale of boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy inadvertently says something to upset girl, girl promptly runs off and joins the local convent. Romeo was a bit sketchy when it came to the details of what exactly had been said to cause the rift but he proved disconcertingly determined to give us full chapter and verse on how his entire life had been utterly ruined by the collapse of the affair.

“So, what can you tell us about this convent where Rosaline has taken up residence?” Michael asked just as soon as he could get a word in, clearly feeling it was time we moved the discussion onto a more practical basis.

“The convent of Santa Maria della Scala lies just north of the river,” replied Romeo. “It is a long-established house, renowned throughout the whole region.”

“And you’re sure there’s no such thing as a visiting hour where you could pop in and have a quick word?” I clarified.

“Absolutely not,” said Romeo with a sorrowful shake of his head. “It is an entirely closed order – once a young woman takes the veil at Santa Maria della Scala her family must wave farewell to her for good. I am afraid that poor Rosaline may have entered the convent in a rash moment of anger and now finds herself trapped there by the strict rule of the sisters. It may be that she now repents her choice but, if so, how are we to know?”

“I suppose we have to find a way to get inside to find out,” mused Michael. “How do they get their supplies? Are there regular deliveries? Or how about maintenance? Could we pose as workmen come to fix the roof or something?”

Romeo again shook his head. “The sisters pride themselves on their self-sufficiency as much as their chastity. They do their own repairs and all deliveries are left outside the main entrance. It is entirely forbidden for any man to set foot within the convent walls at any time.”

There was a moment of thoughtful silence whilst we all chewed this over.

“In that case it seems to me we need a woman to go knocking at the door…” I eventually suggested.

“But what woman?” returned Romeo with a mournful sigh. “This is such delicate business that I would trust none beyond this table to undertake it.”

“Well then…” said Michael with a raise of the eyebrow.

It took a second or two for Romeo to catch his meaning. “What is it you suggest? That one of us disguise ourselves in womanly garb in order to gain admittance? Surely not,” he spluttered in surprise. “T’would be purest folly. The nuns would see through the ruse in an instant!”

Both Michael and I stared at Romeo for a moment, wondering if he was being deliberately obtuse. But though I scoured his expression closely for signs of irony he regarded us in return with an entirely straight face. I didn’t know whether to be impressed or insulted that my masculine persona was holding up so well under scrutiny. Either way, I figured we had best take things slowly.

“Alright, I’ll grant you that Michael, being about seven-foot-tall, will probably not look too convincing in drag…” I began.

“And it is scarce likely that anyone would e’er mistake my manly features for those of a tender maid,” insisted Romeo.

I somehow managed to stifle a snort and Michael took to carefully studying his cup of wine for a moment.

“Then I think perhaps we all agree that Master Everingham is the best candidate for the job,” suggested Michael once he had recovered a sufficiently straight face.

Romeo peered at me intently. “You know, I do believe you may be onto something there!” he suddenly declared. “I should not have seen it otherwise but on closer inspection I dare to venture that Master Everingham has just such a smooth, beardless skin and soft, ruby lips that might well pass for a those of a woman. Perchance his sweet, gentle voice might convincingly speak a woman’s words and his slender, girlish figure…”

“Alright, that’ll do!” I cut in, growing increasingly uncomfortable.

Romeo gazed at me eagerly. “Well, canst thou do this Master Everingham?” he said. “Canst thou, assuming womanly guise, enter the convent, track down fair Rosaline and win her back to the side of her poor love-sick Romeo? Canst thou prove yourself to be love’s own true saviour?”

Well, what was I supposed to say? I smiled weakly in response to those intensely appealing eyes and with a light shrug replied, “I’ll see what I can do.”


The convent of Santa Maria della Scala stood in the centre of a rare patch of open ground just beyond the river, somehow holding itself aloof from the otherwise densely-packed buildings of the city. It’s tall, white-washed walls seemed to rise like a declaration of purity, fending off the bustling streets and alleys that pressed in on it from all sides. The entrance, a heavy oak door half-covered by an iron grill, appeared far from inviting.

Nevertheless, later that afternoon, wearing an ill-fitting dress borrowed from one of the Montague’s kitchen staff, I left Michael and Romeo hovering anxiously in the shadow of the houses opposite and strode purposefully up the narrow path to the convent door. Pulling on the bell-rope that hung beside the door, I heard a low, echoing sound peal sonorously away into the distance.

There was a painfully long wait before the sound of footsteps came back in response and suddenly a small, square panel in the centre of the door was drawn back. A rather young, very scrubbed face encased within a tightly-fitted wimple peered out at me from behind the iron grill and said, “Yes?”


“Hello,” I said and then paused. So much of the previous hour had been taken up with firstly sorting out my attire and then being lectured by Romeo on all the lines and sonnets I ought to deploy once I came face to face with Rosaline that it was only now that I realised no thought had been given to what strategy ought to be employed to get me in to see Rosaline in the first place. I’ll be perfectly honest and admit that under the pressure of the moment my first idea was not exactly inspired. “I’d like to apply to become a nun please,” I said brightly.

“I’m sorry but our order is currently full,” replied the face behind the grill.

“But you recently took in a friend of mine,” I protested. “A girl named Rosaline, you must know her.”

“Quite possibly but we have room for no more,” the young nun insisted. “If you are truly in earnest about following the religious life then you should speak to your parish priest.”

“Well, yes, I’ll do that but perhaps while I’m here I could just have a quick word with Rosaline,” I suggested. “Find out how she’s getting on, maybe get a few tips.”

The nun gave me an apologetic smile. “That’s quite impossible I’m afraid. All novices must remain entirely sequestered during their period of commencement,” she advised. “But you can rest assured that she has settled into her new life very well.” And, seeming to feel that this concluded our discussion, she made a move to close the hatch in the door.

“Wait, just a minute!” I blurted out in something of a panic, sensing my opportunity slipping away. “I’m afraid I lied. I don’t actually want to join the order. The truth is, I need your help!”

The tactic worked in so far as it caused the nun to hesitate in her actions but, as she looked at me with a curious expression, I could sense it was only a temporary reprieve. Needing to hold her attention but lacking anything more substantial to say, I followed up with a melodramatic cry of, “Please don’t turn me away. I’m in terrible trouble!”

There was a further brief hesitation and then the nun suddenly snapped shut the hatch. For a second I thought I must have blown it. But then I heard the sounds of bolts being drawn aside and a key turning in the lock. Finally, the door creaked open just a few inches and a voice softly said, “Enter.”

Gratefully grasping this tenuous opportunity, I slipped hurriedly through the narrow gap and the door was swiftly shut behind me. Before she said anything further the nun set about carefully locking the door and re-setting all the bolts. Watching this lengthy process, I recalled Romeo’s words about the zealousness with which the convent protected the chastity of its inhabitants and was assailed by a sudden bout of nerves. Now that I had breached the walls it occurred to me that it might not be the getting in, but the getting out, that would prove the truly tricky part.

Of course, it was too late to turn back now. The nun, noticing my apprehensive expression, laid a soothing hand on my arm. “Don’t worry, you’ve done the right thing. You’ll be safe here,” she assured me. “My name is Sister Angelica.”

“I’m Natasha,” I told her.

“First things first, you must speak to the Prioress,” said Sister Angelica. “I’ll take you to her now.”

She led the way down a short corridor that opened onto a wide quadrangle. As we turned along a bright, airy cloister I figured I had better try and use the opportunity to make a few discreet enquiries.

“The friend that I mentioned, Rosaline, you do know her then?” I casually asked.

“I know everyone within these walls,” replied Sister Angelica. “We are a very close-knit community.”

“Is she happy here, would you say?” I asked as we turned to make our way up a narrow staircase. “You know, settling in all right, making friends?”

“She is settling in as well as can be expected,” answered Sister Angelica. “It is a very different life to the one she has left behind so naturally it takes time to adjust.”

“Oh, I’m sure it does,” I noted. “Does Rosaline ever talk about her life outside the convent? Has she ever mentioned what brought her here in the first place?”

By this point we had reached a doorway on the first floor and Sister Angelica abruptly stopped and turned to me. “There’s no need to be so nervous,” she said sympathetically. “You must trust in the Lord to put things right. The Prioress is a very understanding woman.”

“Er, okay,” I somewhat uncertainly replied.

“If you wait here, I’ll go in and explain matters to my Lady Abbess,” advised Sister Angelica. She knocked on the door and almost immediately received a brusque summons to enter. With a final reassuring smile, she disappeared inside, leaving me to kick my heels in the corridor and wonder just exactly what were the matters that she intended to explain on my behalf.

Whatever they were, they didn’t take long, for it was barely a minute or so later that the door re-opened and Sister Angelica beckoned me to enter the room beyond. As I went in, she went out, pausing only to lay a hand on my arm and murmur comfortingly, “Fear not, you’re in safe hands now,” as we passed.

All this reassurance was only serving to make me all the more nervous and so it was with some trepidation that I glanced around the room I now found myself in. It looked very much like a larger, airier version of Lord Montague’s counting house with a bookcase packed full of weighty-looking tomes and a desk piled high with papers. Behind the desk sat the Prioress. After some deliberation I figured she must be in her mid-forties, though such things were hard to judge as she was dressed in a shapeless habit and plain headdress which served to render her ageless as well as sexless. She was a short, slightly plump woman whose keen eyes regarded me with an expression of unfailing good sense. I gazed back awkwardly, not knowing what Sister Angelica might have told her about me and consequently not sure quite what to say.

“Don’t look so uncomfortable child, I won’t bite you,” the Prioress began, thus saving me the bother. “Sister Angelica has told me of your trouble. I won’t bandy around with delicate words or fine speeches. How long has it been?”

“Excuse me?” I said.

“How long since the deed was done?” demanded the Prioress. “That loose dress is clearly intended to cover a multitude of sins but I don’t see much sign of swelling yet. I presume it can’t be more than a month or two at most.”

“Ah,” I said. You probably think me a wee bit dense when I confess that it was only now that I cottoned on to precisely what form of ‘trouble’ Sister Angelica had construed me as finding myself in. Under the pressure of the Prioress’s fierce gaze I could think of no immediate alternative other than to go along with the charade for the time being. “Something like that, yeah,” I murmured noncommittally.

“Speak up girl, it’s as well to be accurate on these matters,” persisted the Prioress, standing up and moving over to the window so she could better examine me by its light. “When exactly were you last visited by the curse of Venus?”

“The what?” I spluttered, still a little slow on the uptake.

“The curse!” repeated the Prioress in exasperation. “Your monthly bleeding! Have you missed this month, last month, more?”

“Erm, last month, yeah,” I told her, thinking it best to leave it at that and not reveal that I hadn’t actually had a period since the fitting of my contraceptive implant at the beginning of the year.

“Hmm, I suppose that’s not too desperate,” mused the Prioress. “These things are more easily dealt with the sooner they are faced.” She paused and gazed thoughtfully out of the window for a moment or two. “So, which of them was it that got you into this trouble?” she suddenly asked. “I hope for your sake it was the tall handsome one and not the fey boy with the curls.”

Somewhat confused, I stepped forward to the window. Following the Prioress’s gaze out of the window I spotted Michael and Romeo lurking in the doorway of a house across the street. They were doing their best to look inconspicuous but the way they kept whispering together and throwing anxious glances in the direction of the convent somewhat gave the game away. “Well?” said the Prioress expectantly.


“Oh yeah, it was definitely the tall one,” I replied. Well, what was I supposed to say? A girl has her pride, after all.

“I suppose it speaks of some affection that he waits for you so restlessly,” remarked the Prioress thoughtfully. “Is there no chance of him taking care of you and the baby? I can easily direct you to a priest who would be willing to overlook a swollen belly at the altar. They are more common than you might think – it is a widely-held view that God prefers a vow taken late to one not taken at all. Marriage is usually the simplest answer.”

“Ah, well, you see, he’s already married,” I regretfully explained.

“Of course he is,” said the Prioress with a sigh. She turned back towards the room. “Have you consulted with anyone else about this matter?” she asked sharply.

I shook my head.

The Prioress regarded me closely. “You haven’t spoken to the apothecary, for example? Come now, I must have absolute candour from you.”

“I promise I haven’t consulted the apothecary,” I was able to truthfully swear.

“I am glad to hear it,” replied the Prioress. “That man is nothing but a charlatan and a fraud. He knows nothing of physick and is as like to kill as he is to cure in any instance. I would strongly urge you to steer well clear of the apothecary, whatever your circumstances.”

“I will,” I replied, somewhat taken aback by the strength of the Prioress’s feeling.

Seemingly glad to have got that off her chest, the Prioress returned to her desk and sat down. “Very well, we will do what we can for you.”

“Thank-you,” I said. “That’s very…”

“However, unlike the apothecary I am not inclined to make promises that I cannot keep,” cut in the Prioress sharply, “so I warn you now that while the preparation I will have made up for you has proved efficacious in the past there are no guarantees. It remains in God’s hands as to whether or not he chooses to wash away the consequences of your sin. Do you understand me?”

I nodded solemnly.

“The only true way to maintain one’s purity is to turn a deaf ear to the honeyed words of married men, no matter how pleasing their form,” the Prioress went on. “Anyone can make a mistake but I will not look kindly upon a girl who is so unwise as to repeat her folly. If you return to this convent again in the same condition you will be turned away without hesitation. Is that clear?”

“It is,” I replied, adopting a suitably chastened expression.

With a satisfied nod the Prioress reached out for a small bell that stood on the corner of her desk and rang it sharply. We both remained frozen in awkward silence for a minute or two before there was a knock on the door in response. The Prioress called out, “Enter!” and a stocky nun with a muddy hem to her habit and untidy wisps of fair hair escaping from her wimple came into the room.

“Sister Ursula, this is Natasha,” the Prioress announced briskly to the newcomer. “She has been rather foolish in her relations with a young man and now comes to us in her hour of need. I have satisfied myself that we are justified in treating her in a spirit of Christian forgiveness. Therefore, I would be grateful if you could take her down to the kitchen and prepare the usual remedy. I don’t believe matters have progressed so far that we need consider any stronger action.”

Sister Ursula shot me a knowing glance before bowing in obedience to the Prioress.

“Go with Sister Ursula,” advised the Prioress, turning to me. “The preparation of the potion will take a little while so I suggest you take that time to reflect upon your sins and consider what actions you may take to win back the Lord’s favour.”

I responded with what seemed to me to be a suitably penitent nod of the head.

“Now go with my blessing,” said the Prioress.

Thus dismissed, I turned and accompanied Sister Ursula out of the room. She led us down the stairs and across the quadrangle into the refectory on the opposite side. We proceeded through here and straight through the kitchen beyond to emerge at the edge of the convent garden. This was about the size of a football pitch and so packed with plants, shrubs and herbs that the heady mixture of scents almost took my breath away. Not an inch of ground appeared to be wasted; vegetation sprouted in every direction, plants and flowers jostling one another for space everywhere you looked. The whole was entirely enclosed by the high outer wall except for where a low, wooden and, judging from its cobwebby state, rarely used gate was set in one corner.

“Wow, this place is amazing!” I instinctively exclaimed.

Sister Ursula allowed herself a smile of quiet satisfaction. “Without wishing to fall into the sin of pride I will confess that we are rather proud of our little garden,” she admitted. “We have plants and herbs here that cannot be found anywhere else in Northern Italy.”

“It must take a lot of work,” I observed.

“It may be the lot of women in society in general to be ornamental but here in the convent we prefer to be useful,” declared Sister Ursula. “The Lord detests idleness. And now you can make yourself useful,” she added, picking up a basket by the kitchen door, “by holding this while I gather up what we need for your cure.”

I did as I was told and obediently trailed after Sister Ursula as she moved about the garden, gathering up the various roots and herbs that would make up my ‘cure’. As we did so a plan began to slowly formulate in my mind. It was pretty clear to me by now there was little chance of my conveniently bumping into Rosaline this afternoon and any attempt to wander off in search of her would be swiftly shut down. But by engaging Sister Ursula in apparently casual conversation as we worked, I began to see my way to formulating a scheme by which this visit would not prove a total bust.


Once we had everything we needed we returned to the kitchen where I was able to keep up my subtle interrogation of Sister Ursula while I helped out with the painstaking business of chopping, crushing and grinding the ingredients. Once prepared, the mixture was set to simmer upon the stove for thirty minutes or so and I persuaded Sister Ursula to allow me to wait out that time in the garden in a solitary contemplation of my sins. By the time Sister Ursula called me back to the kitchen to tell me that my cure was ready I was confident I had everything in place for a sure-fire scheme to get Romeo and Rosaline back together before the next day dawned.

Standing by the stove Sister Ursula handed me a small jar containing an extremely unappealing looking grey-green sludge. I was immensely relieved to discover that she didn’t expect me to knock it back there and then. “I recommend you boil it up with a little milk or beer and then drink it down in one go, do not delay or hesitate,” she advised. “Allow yourself time away from your chores for it is like that you will need to keep to your bed for several hours afterwards.”

“Right-o,” I replied, gazing somewhat dubiously at the murky concoction.

“You will likely as not experience some aches and cramps but that cannot be helped,” said Sister Ursula briskly. “You would surely rather suffer some discomfort now than face the shame and ruin that will otherwise follow.”

“I suppose,” I replied.

“Come now, I will see you to the door,” said Sister Ursula.

We retraced our steps through the refectory, across the quadrangle and down the short corridor to the main entrance. “I really don’t know how to thank you,” I was moved to say as Sister Ursula began the lengthy process of pulling back the bolts and unlocking the door. I was in fact both surprised and touched by the compassion with which I had been received by these women and felt a distinct pang of guilt at deceiving them over my ‘condition’.

“It is our pleasure,” Sister Ursula simply replied as she finally pulled the door ajar and waved me out. “Just remember,” she added with a gentle smile as I passed beyond the walls of the convent, “for future happiness take this my advice, whene’er fine gent with soft words woos, think twice!”

To be continued…

This entry was posted in Episode 21 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s